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Mad Collectors #4
by Jilliana Ranicar-Breese

You don't know a person really until you have lived in their house as a guest. My biggest mistake was mixing business with pleasure. Believe me the Christmas in New Orleans with my pre-cinema client was no pleasure!

I had met Bob Fleischman, an elderly American, in Portobello Road hunting for top end pre-cinema items for his small collection. I was the number one specialist in optical toys buying in Paris to sell in London or elsewhere like Vienna, Los Angeles, Barcelona and London where I had clients. I was also a member of the Magic Lantern Society in London and sold slides, French tin magic lanterns or paper optical persistence of vision items to many of the members at home and abroad.

Bob appeared as to be friendly and knowledgeable lecturing in pre-cinema and early cinema at New Orleans university. He was also an antiques dealer helping a dear friend in his shop in Key West plus he taught mime and had studied psychodrama with the master and creator, Jacob Levy Moreno. Thus he should have been an interesting man to converse with.

Over the years we became E-pals, rather than outdated pen pals, so when my marriage to magical Martin fell apart in 2006, sympathetic Bob invited me to spend Christmas with him. Thank God it was not for my birthday on the 30th. He explained that he owned a house around a palm tree courtyard with a guest house where I could relax and be peaceful in the company of his cats. He was so insistent and it sounded tempting so, without seeing any photos, I finally accepted booking the expensive high holiday season trip to New Orleans on 22nd December for a week. Too long it turned out chez Bob who turned out to be a mean recluse whose only friends were cats. His only other outside contact was with a small group of friends who met weekly for breakfast in a cafe not wrecked by Hurricane Katrina in August 2015.

Katrina had devastated New Orleans and changed people's lives forever. There had been criticism over how the poor black people had been abandoned in the floods when the National Guard took too long to arrive to help. Later looting, especially Walmart, and violence took place through hunger. Along with 1 million people Bob fled the evacuated city and went to the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee in the National Park renting a cabin where he had a contact after his Key West friend, perhaps his partner, had died. 100,000 people remained in the abandoned city.  His chosen hovel had not been touched by Katrina but New Orleans had become a ghost city and with his friends scattered all over America staying with relatives, Bob had become a lost, withdrawn and depressed man. In fact he wondered if he should abandon his native city but then he thought of the financial side because he owned several properties.

In fact Bob could only talk about his portfolio of properties or the stock of valuable antiques which he had brought back from the Key West shop and left abandoned on the  floor of one of his beautifully decorated empty houses. It made no sense why he was not living in that beautifully decorated clapboard decorated house.   He asked my advice about putting these antiques into auction but I had no knowledge of the market in America for decorative European antiques. It seemed Bob had also been his partner's carer as well as his 'special' friend. I did not dare ask if they had been lovers especially as their friendship had been for at least forty years.

Bob had a car that he only used for shopping and meeting his once a week friends, so he did not offer to drive me anywhere except to show off his numerous properties and a tour around the downtown black area that had been ravaged and flattened.   I was thus forced to take public transport to get to the historic French Quarter to eat, hear Jazz and hunt for vintage apparel which was abundant in New Orleans.

My host had given me the guest house which was a rail road house consisting of three rooms. You entered a large old fashioned kitchen/diner which was the only place to eat. This led to a sitting room decked out with traditional antiques and patchwork textiles which in turn led to the small bedroom also in Colonial New England style to match the lounge. It was cold as Bob was too mean to put the heating on. Yes, there were dry neglected palm trees and architectural tropical foliage in the overgrown L shaped yard which I would not have described as a courtyard but there was an abandoned fountain which the cats used to drink water.

On Christmas Eve Bob invited me to a traditional restaurant for a special roast turkey with all the trimmings. That evening he was merry with a few glasses of dry white wine and happy to see me. I had just arrived and I was probably his only guest ever although I didn't know it at the time.

I had brought some Victorian strips for his British zoetrope and two odd anamorphoses Napoleon 111 cards from a broken set as a gift and was surprised when he plonked them on the dusty shelf in his 'living room' mumbling 'Thanks'. His valuable collection was on the first floor abandoned in dirty showcases. No display and just haphazardly left to rot. I was mortified. How could this educator treat these priceless collectables in such a way? I only ventured up to the first floor once. That was enough! It was like a dusty store room.

Downstairs on the ground floor I can only describe the place as a hovel. The neighbourhood cats wandered in and out through his open door so it was always chilly. Bob did not believe in warmth even for his catty friends. He slept fully clothed wearing a camel haired overcoat on the large sofa with his special tabby friend called Moro, presumably after his Jewish mentor.  His cats were better fed than he was.

After two meals out he announced that he no longer wished to go out to eat and showed me his tinned food storage cupboard. This scenario reminded me of my Welsh mother stocking up in Liverpool for World War 111. No fresh vegetables or fruit for us. Just cans of stuff. I was trapped. Fortunately he had introduced me to his hospitable neighbour, Jennifer Jenkins and so I ate at her place, watched American TV and went around with her locally in her car.  She had retired from public relations living alone after a bad divorce. She wasn't even friends with Bob and had never been invited once into his sanctuary. I didn't inform her of the state of the abode. Somehow I sensed she instinctively knew!

The only interesting place I found was a vintage shop with the charming owner dressed in a full length red satin 1940s décolleté evening dress wearing bright vampire red lipstick. Her auburn locks were swept up 40s style with various combs.  It was an enormous shop full to the brim with vintage dresses from the 40s to the 80s and there was a piano for anyone to sit down and play. I was lucky to hear  'Rhapsody in blue'  being played with gusto. The prices were so cheap because the old stock seemed to be permanently on sale with large vulgar show cards stating the giveaway prices. I succumbed of course and bought a red dressing gown which today hangs on my bathroom door in Brighton.

Bob demonstrated a movement technique he had created linked with mime. That day he confessed he had studied with Jewish Marcel Marceau in Paris as a young man.  He was dressed all in black and got me to lie on the floor in my lounge as there was no room to swing a cat in his.

Jennifer finally drove me to the airport with Bob waving adieu. Strains of Bing Crosby singing 'I'm dreaming of an awful Christmas....' was imprinted on the screen of my mind.

Never again!

Written at the Villa Perla, Kaleici, Antalya, Turkey on 21/3/17.


Wikipedia - Hurricane Katrina and its effects
Google - The French Quarter New Orleans
Wikipedia - Marcel Marceau
Wikipedia - Jacob Levy Moreno
Google - Magic Lantern Society -